Year Two at Sacramento State: It’s On

I'm the tall guy in the back.

I’m excited to get back to Sacramento State, where my second year as the faculty adviser for The State Hornet student news publication commences in less than a week. Technically, my job title is "Professional Journalist in Residence"—a pretty good title, as far as titles go. (Journalist rule of thumb: Job titles besides "owner" or "editor" mean nothing to anybody but those distributing the business cards.) I’m excited to get going with this and everything else the next five months promises, which is… a lot.

This semester, I’ll teach several sections of The Hornet, a section of News Editing, and Magazine Writing. I’m especially excited about the latter class, which integrates Medium for everything from the class syllabus/schedule to the culminating project: A publication of student work called Riverfront Magazine.

This hasn’t been tried before at Sac State, somewhat to my discredit. This is the third time I’ve taught Magazine Writing, and I should have nudged the curriculum into the publication realm when I offered it in Spring 2015. But it’s my first time teaching it as a full-timer, so there will be more time and energy applied to gradually getting stories in shape for an audience, as opposed to the more staid, academic pursuit of week-to-week assignments. You’ll know as soon as I do whether or not it’s working, because it’ll all be online. Fingers crossed, etc. etc.

News Editing is a challenge I hadn’t anticipated. I taught it for the first time during the spring, hoping to illuminate the nuances, hurdles, pitfalls, and other ups and downs of working with writers, photographers, designers and others in the production realm. We kind of got there. But early on, I found a more bracing reality: Students don’t read very much. So I’ve restructured the entire class around crafting breaking news in emoji.

Yeah, no. Now a good portion of the early class is dedicated not only to the fundamentals of style, copy, and news judgment, but also to consuming and metabolizing everything from headline theory to visual and/or interactive storytelling packages. It’s less about learning the Timeless Techniques of Editing than understanding how to identify stories, recognize their ideal medium (or media), and have both the technical and intellectual tools to collaborate and execute with those stories’ creators.

If that sounds academic, then meet me over at The State Hornet. Many of the students in News Editing come through The Hornet as editors; I did it when I was a student at Sac State in the early ’00s, and the path hasn’t changed. The editors do practical work for publication every day. It’s awesome. It’s also weird, because that wasn’t the only static element of The Hornet I recognized upon returning last fall: The "print-first" mentality that guided my time as a student reporter 14 years ago was still a guiding principle of The Hornet in 2015.

I don’t think this is unique to The Hornet. Fraught as its overall economic space has become, and quaint as its medium is often regarded, a "student newspaper" still carries weight with readers, advertisers and administrators at colleges and universities. After all, it’s hyperlocal news: Sac State is a community of roughly 37,000 people, and right now, The Hornet is the only regularly published, non-Public Affairs source of reporting available to this community. Such circumstances provide considerable leeway for "old" media to do its thing and even thrive. Our incoming editor-in-chief is transitioning the print product from a weekly broadsheet to a weekly tabloid, which augurs thrilling developments in everything from cover design to story layout to simple portability for readers.

Still, you can’t get much more portable than your phone, and The Hornet has some catching up to do on the digital side of its operation. I perceive this as the biggest challenge of the year to come, and we’ve been working all summer to ensure a year of opportunity, experimentation and growth for our program’s students.

I’m particularly excited for the forthcoming State Hornet Digital Academy, which will convene in January. There, mentors in Multimedia Storytelling, Social Media, Interactive Design and PR/Marketing will guide a small cohort of students though redesigning and relaunching for the 21st century (at last). This type of attention for both The State Hornet and its students is overdue, and it’s an understatement that I’m over the fucking moon to work with the university to inaugurate it at our campus. It’s modeled in part after the Dow Jones News Fund’s Multimedia Training Academy, an annual digital boot camp for instructors at Hispanic-Serving Institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. I attended this past May at UT El Paso, and I owe Kate Gannon and her team a debt of gratitude for the framework we’ll adapt for our Digital Academy at Sac State. More on that as it approaches.

Finally, I’ll be presenting a talk called "What Do You Read?" at the ACP National College Media Convention this fall in Washington, D.C. As noted above, we have a problem in journalism education with students (and also, frankly, a lot of teachers) disinclined to omnivorous reading and discovery. I was one of them until roughly 2004, when one of my first advising session at NYU’s graduate journalism program involved Rob Boynton stumping me with the question, "What do you read?" I mean, I read—I remember boasting that I was an early subscriber of The Believer (which was true, but the question wasn’t "What do you smugly receive in your mailbox every month and abandon after about 10 pages?")—but I read what I know now was a bare minimum of books, magazines, websites and other input that is required to see and understand how the pros (and the amateurs and interns and dilettantes and so on) do their jobs. By "jobs," I generally mean "craft": It’s not just how they arrange text, but rather how they grasp and execute news structure, judgment and overall storytelling.

Anyway, the genius of the question is both its open-ended simplicity and its quietly defiant standard-bearing: There’s a reasonable expectation that journalists, regardless of their eras or media, should inform themselves through reading. For every one journalist for whom this is obvious, I’d bet there are 10 who understand it as–at most–conventional wisdom that they possess but do not act on. Skimming Facebook or Twitter or their phones’ news-app push notifications doesn’t count, nor does it correlate to some towering, unconscionable shame or abrogation of journalistic duty. It just means they should read more.

It’s easy for students to overlook this imperative when, like headline theory, no one has put it to them as essentially as "What do you read?" So I’ll be trying that in October, and I welcome suggestions for what I should read ahead of that talk. Either way, I’ll try to let you know how that—and the rest of the busy season ahead—unfolds as it happens.

(Photo via Sacramento State)

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